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The South Africa Diary: Hamilton Russell

Anthony Hamilton Russell and winemaker Hannes Storm specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but continue to experiment in their own backyard
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Hamilton Russell, clay amphorae are now being used to ferment a small portion of the estate's Chardonnay.

Posted: Feb 14, 2013 4:00pm ET

Walker Bay wine history starts with Hamilton Russell, when Tim Hamilton Russell founded his winery in 1979. At that time, the wine industry was ruled by a quota system for production, and the early vintages of Hamilton Russell were made in a, shall we say, slightly clandestine manner, sourcing fruit from what are now the estate's vineyards, though at the time were not "legal."

Today the winery is one of the most recognized brands in the U.S. market, and rightfully so, as it has become the flag bearer for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from South Africa. Tim's son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, now runs the estate, zipping down from his house on his favorite motorcycle to the winery which sits at the bottom of the slope. In between are 160 acres of vines (the estate totals 420 acres) which often show the telltale band of red leaves along the base of the canopy that marks the leaf roll virus. The virus, which shortens a vine's lifespan and makes ripening difficult, is a fact of life on the farm, brought in with the original plantings. Hamilton Russell is constantly replanting and trying to stay ahead of the shorter life curve of his vineyard parcels.

"I've been here 20 years and planted the entire estate one and a half times over," said Anthony Hamilton Russell.

Among the changes here since my visit in 2007 is a re-categorizing of the Walker Bay ward into a larger district, and then breaking it down into more detailed wards.

"Walker Bay was too big to have significance as a ward. It wasn't fair to everyone in the area," said Hamilton Russell, who spearheaded the changes, though they met resistance along the way. "It's like saying Oregon is all you need to explain the wine regions of Oregon, instead of Willamette Valley and the other areas. But now that we have the changes, we have to work at giving them long-term meaning," he said.

The changes include the estate now in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ward, which includes Hamilton Russell and the neighboring Ashbourne and Bouchard Finlayson estates and their clay/shale soils. Moving up the valley, the Upper-Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ward, home to Newton Johnson and Sumaridge wineries, features granite soils. At the top of the valley is the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward, where the soils change back to clay/shale but the differences are more in the weather itself, with warmer daytime highs but markedly cooler nighttime lows, and considerably more breeze (Ataraxia is the main property there).

The sense of history here doesn't end with an area pioneer and a redrawing of the appellation map. There have been only three winemakers in Anthony Hamilton Russell's history: Peter Finlayson, who went on to start the neighboring Bouchard Finlayson; Kevin Grant, who has since planted his flag at Ataraxia, and now Hannes Storm, 36, who has been at the estate since 2000.

The Pinot Noir here is decidedly Burgundian in style, with subtle perfume, stylish texture and long, lingering, gentle flavors, as opposed to the more robust style at Bouchard Finlayson. In part, it's an effect of the virus, which results in ripening at lower alcohol. While it's a style that Hamilton Russell and Storm also aim for, they've learned to take what the vineyard gives them rather than wrestle the fruit into their own preferred style.

"It's not that we're in the southern part of the country—we're basically the same equivalent latitude as Santa Barbara," said Hamilton Russell. "It's not that we're cold—we pick in February, which is our hottest month. We figured out it had to be the soils. Since the '90s we've vinified all parcels separately and realized the shale/gravel soils gave us what we wanted for the Pinot, while the sandstone parts didn't. We rejiggered the vineyards then to get all the Pinot on the shale/gravel and from there the estate draws its identity."

Today, Hamilton Russell produces 12,500 cases annually. In addition, Hamilton Russell also owns and operates separately the Southern Right estate (1,100 acres, 16.5 under vines, producing 16,000 cases annually) and Ashbourne (279 acres, 62 under vine, producing 1,600 cases annually).

The 2009 Pinot Noir Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is the heftiest of the recent vintages here, checking in at 13.9 percent alcohol. But it maintains the estate's signature sleek, mineral-driven red cherry and singed sandalwood notes with finely beaded acidity. It's long, pure and beautifully defined. The 2010 Pinot Noir Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is equally good, showing a bit more stuffing but more detailed aromatics as well, with bergamot, orange blossom and light tea spice to go with the red cherry and damson plum notes. It's also very, very stylish. The 2010 marks the first vintage in which the wine was racked once during the élevage, a recent tweak in the winemaking process here.

"So it's an oxidative approach, but it seems to clean up the aromas a bit," said Storm. "As the wine is on its lees for seven months to start with, it can develop some closed aromatics, and we wanted to open that up a bit."

There are tweaks being made with the barrels themselves as well. The winery has shifted to more blonde toasted barrels, "for less overt spice and gentler structure," said Hamilton Russell.

The 2011 Pinot Noir Hemel-en-Aarde Valley shows a light briary edge and its typical rooibos tea, spice and mineral notes and very stylish red cherry fruit. It's cooler and lighter-bodied in feel than the 2009 and '10, but equally long. The 2012 Pinot Noir Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, set to be bottled in just a few days, was 90 percent racked, as Hamilton Russell and Storm have adopted the practice more and more since 2010. It shows bright Bing cherry and raspberry fruit with a strong red licorice edge, but plenty of floral notes as well. It's still quite primal, but lovely sleek acidity and a flash of nutmeg on the finish bode well for the future. It's ripe, but focused and tightly wound and seems to have the best definition of the four recent vintages.

There are slight changes being made with the Chardonnay production as well, as clay amphorae have been utilized in increasing percentages in recent vintages. The first trials resulted in quite a few broken amphorae, but once the kiln got the hang of what was needed, including using clay from the estate, Hamilton Russell has been able to move from just 1 to 3 percent of the production in amphorae.

"We found that some of the old-vine fruit was overwhelmed in oak, as they produce fruit that's ripe at 11 degrees alcohol. With the amphorae we get the same air exchange as we get in barrel, but without oak flavor," said Hamilton Russell.

The 2009 Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley shows dried pineapple, star fruit, white peach and heather notes. It's still very pure and bright with a youthfully spiced finish. There are just hints of hazelnut and matchstick peeking in now, but still plenty of time to go. But the question of when to drink the wine, which has a track record of aging well, splits the room.

"Personally, I prefer the Chardonnay young, when it still has its edginess," said Hamilton Russell. "But yes, it can clearly age," said Hamilton Russell.

The 2010 Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is the best vintage yet released from the estate. It's broader and juicier in feel, with pineapple, yellow apple and green melon notes laced with piecrust and heather. Despite its extra layers and depth, it stays fresh and light-bodied on the lovely finish.

The 2011 Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is the first vintage where some clay amphorae were used. It shows a crystalline purity, with pineapple, white peach, star fruit, fennel and yellow apple notes all mingling, and a long, fine mineral edge on the finish. It's very precise. The 2012 Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is the first vintage to also see some stainless steel vats (just 5 percent, as the crop was so large, all the barrels and amphorae were filled while there was still fruit coming in), though this change is not likely to be permanent.

"Usually stainless steel is for fruit retention which we don't want because we're not aiming for a fruity style," said Hamilton Russell. "But it seemed to work in '12, so we might play with it a bit going forward."

The '12 checks in at 13.5 percent, the highest alcohol here since 1990 (the wine is typically 13.1 or less). "But the pH is still 3.1 and the acidity is still there. And by doing a little less malolactic than usual, only 75 percent, we were able to keep that freshness in a big vintage like '12," said Storm.

The wine is clearly the biggest of the four recent vintages, with plantain and fig notes as well as pear, yellow apple and heather. Despite its weight, the finish is long and slightly nervy, with a mouthwatering, bitter citrus oil–tinged finish.

Hamilton Russell's love of lower alcohol, minerally styled wines has driven him to develop his neighboring farm, Ashbourne. The project, which features a red based on Pinotage and a white based on Sauvignon Blanc, has been in the works for over a decade, though Hamilton Russell admits he hasn't been the best at explaining it to the marketplace.

"If Ashbourne was my business I would've completely screwed it up," he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "I've done everything I can to make an interesting, quality wine, but done nothing to project it to the world," said Hamilton Russell.

For the red, the first vintage was 2001, but then there was no '02, '03 nor '06. The wine was 100 percent Pinotage until 2007, when it became a blend.

The 2007 Ashbourne Walker Bay is a 82/9/9 Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon blend with a bold savory and briary profile along with cherry pit, plum skin and toasted spice notes backed by flashes of bay and mint through the juicy finish. It's very distinctive. The 2008 Ashbourne Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is a 67/33 Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon blend that shows a decidedly tangy edge, with more red fruit—currant and cherry—along with singed orange peel, rooibos tea and sanguine notes. It's more graceful through the finish without the bold savory streak of the '07.

The 2009 Ashbourne Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is 86 percent Pinotage with drops of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot as the estate's vines come progressively on line. It has the density of the '07, but better texture and integration, as blueberry, raspberry and blackberry fruit had melded with the briary tannins, while spice, mint and singed vanilla notes fill in the finish. The 2010 Ashbourne Hemel-en-Aarde Valley features 75 percent Pinotage with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It's the lightest in body of the flight, but still taut and energetic, with cassis and red cherry notes, well-integrated spice and a flash of red licorice driving the very sleek finish. The 2011 Ashbourne Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is 80 percent Pinotage with 10 percent each of Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, a combination that delivers the greatest range of the flight, with blueberry, plum, blackberry and crushed cherry fruit, lots of roasted woodspice and briar notes and a long, anise and plum eau de vie–infused finish.

With its heavy bottle, longer corks, wooden boxes and an inventory that is held back for four years prior to release, the Ashbourne is expensive to produce.

"i've used Hamilton Russell to pay for this project," said Hamilton Russell, almost plaintively. But the wine is distinctive and unique, a cool climate red that relies on an unusual mélange of grapes, and it's s testament to Hamilton Russell's belief in Pinotage specifically (a grape that I've not been a fan of) and the clay soils and cool climate of the site in general.

While there is some consistent DNA through the flight, the profile of the different vintages of Ashbourne vary greatly from vintage to vintage, unlike the Hamilton Russell wines that are remarkably consistent in flavor profile while only showing slight vintage differentiations.

"We have to take part responsibility for that as we keep feeling our way with the wine," said Hamilton Russell when I queried the mercurial aspect of the wine. "We won't know the perfect combination for the site for some time. Right now we're leaning toward Shiraz and Cabernet Franc with the Pinotage. But that might change as the vines age."

"We have so much to do with Pinotage. And it's supposed to be our own grape, which is strange. If you look at Argentina, they have done so much with Malbec and it seems so easy for them. Here we're still fighting with our so-called signature varietal. And to boot, we have one clone of the grape, our own grape. Isn't that strange?" asked Hamilton Russell.

While the tinkering with the red continues, the white seems to have solidified itself stylistically, though it is equally as distinctive and off-the-beaten track in style as the red.

The 2007 Ashbourne Sandstone Walker Bay is just the second vintage released for the wine, an 85/15 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. There are just 557 cases of the wine, which almost bristles with white asparagus, sea salt, lime and mâche notes. It's all bones but displays lovely purity, with a long, racy quinine-tinged finish that resonates like a just-struck tuning fork. The 2008 Ashbourne Sandstone Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is a 77/20/3 blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Sémillon, with 726 cases made. This displays the quinine note right from the start, with nectarine skin, citrus pulp and pink grapefruit oil notes and terrific cut through the finish. The 2009 Ashbourne Sandstone Hemel-en-Aarde Valley features 88 percent Sauvignon Blanc with the rest Chardonnay (and the Chardonnay was fermented in amphorae for the first time). It crackles with life, showing white asparagus, lime, fleur de sel and lemon pulp notes that blaze through the finish. The 2010 Ashbourne Sandstone Hemel-en-Aarde Valley blends 75 percent Sauvignon Blanc with equal parts each of Chardonnay and Sémillon both fermented in amphorae. There are just 481 cases of the wine, which is the lightest in body of the four vintages, showing gentle chamomile, kaffir lime and white peach notes allied to brisk jicama and peach pit notes. It's tight, but very transparent and pure and should stretch out nicely in the cellar.

While Hamilton Russell finds his way with his Ashbourne project, his penchant for finely-defined terroir plays out in the wines of his winemaker, Hannes Storm, whose eponymous label debuts with the 2012 vintage.

There are just 100 cases of the 2012 Storm Pinot Noir Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Moyas Vineyard, the first crop from this new vineyard further up the valley. From sandy loam soils over granite, the wine displays bold cherry, raspberry and melted red licorice notes, giving way to a friendly, broad mulled strawberry edge on the finish. In contrast, the 300-case lot of the 2012 Storm Pinot Noir Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Vrede Vineyard is sourced from the clay/shale soils that typify the Hamilton Russell estate (though the vineyard is in another part of the ward). It's sleek and restrained, with bitter cherry, damson plum and singed spice notes, a flash of anise and a hint of iron on the finish. They are dramatically different, though as the crow flies, the vineyards are less than 2 kilometers apart. The wines are just about to be bottled and Storm is currently looking for U.S. distribution.

Which just goes to prove, as well as you think you may know your own backyard, there's always something new to discover. Anthony Hamilton Russell is doing just that.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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